Critical Thinking Begins at Home

excellenceA letter came out recently from the President-elect of the main U.S. professional society for scholars who study religion concerning the conference theme for the 2014 meeting in San Diego: “Climate Change and the Coming Global Crisis: Religions and Responses” (read the full letter here [PDF]). Taking the letter as one’s object of study–since we, as scholars, are just as human, and thus our artifacts are just as interesting, as those we usually study, no?–provides an interesting moment in just how far critical thinking can take us when it comes to our own practices as scholars.

Although I happen to believe–a key term in the memo–that global warming is happening and that human behavior has played an important, perhaps even definitive, role, I am no climatologist and can’t even name the different academic specialties that are required to gather the data needed to draw a sensible conclusion on the matter. So be clear–I’m no so-called denier; but I have a Ph.D. that, like anyone else with one, is in a precise specialty, credentialing me within a specific domain of knowledge, so I sensibly leave to others more qualified than me to pronounce on the so-called “facts” (as they are phrased in the memo) of global warming. Apart from the curious way in which the repeated statements of belief slide into proclamations of fact, I therefore find the well-known fallacy of misplaced authority throughout the text. For only if we presume that (A) the object studied by scholars of religion is somehow necessarily beneficial and that (B) those who study it therefore have some special duty to spread the good news of their findings to the benefit of humankind, would a convention of scholars of religion (whether humanists, social scientists, or theologians of whatever stripe) be called upon to apply their research to help solve the climate change crisis.

For a group of scholars whose motto is “Fostering Excellence in the Study of Religion,” I therefore find the unproblematized notion of belief employed as an actual motivating source for action (the following essay is helpful in thinking through the issue involved in such a claim), the uncritical notion that those things we call religions are self-evidently a source of hope for people in crisis (more than one theorist would see them as among the sources of these crises!), and the ease with which scholars trained in the careful study of ancient texts or in doing ethnographies of human behavior are assumed to have a special task in addressing climate change all to be extremely troubling. That this sounds remarkably like a restatement of Mircea Eliade’s “new humanism”–something that has received its own share of critique–is even more bothersome.

So my question is: Just how much excellence are we fostering if no one questions these sorts of claims? What do we even mean by “excellence”?

I recall an earlier university where I worked and how, when we discussed the specialty we needed for an open faculty position, someone would inevitably cut off the discussion by saying, rather grandly, that we were simply looking for the cream of the crop, the best applicant–in a word, excellence. It was a handy rhetorical move, of course, since it papered over the controversies in the room concerning just what excellence meant–best according to what measure? That one happens to share some of the beliefs that are credited with animating our President-elect’s memo should not, I would hope, prevent scholars of religion from knowing their professional limits or curtail them from questioning the sort of excellence that allows our peers to make such claims.

If we’re going to sell the practical utility of the critical thinking that we say we’re teaching our students, then maybe we should consider applying these skills a little closer to home than we usually do. Whatever one thinks our “scholarly duty” is to the fate of humankind, isn’t this at least one that we owe to our own profession–perhaps leaving to our civic duty the diagnosis and correction of the various social ills that we may or may not come to believe in.

5 thoughts on “Critical Thinking Begins at Home

  1. Indeed–it all may come down to authority, authorial legitimacy, no? Cave’s authority, inasmuch as only he mediates access to the real, the whole, the sui generis Eliade? Much as Eliade claimed to mediate access to the real, the whole, the sui generis sacred…?

  2. I don’t know… Not really knowing too terribly much about Eliade (other than the little I’ve read) or his “new humanism”, which I just read a little about to get a frame of reference–and which is interesting in relation to this post–, it’s really more interesting to see how Cave talks about Eliade. It’s very strange to me his talk of “read[ing] Eliade in his own terms…”–I fail to see how this constitutes productive scholarship on “understanding” Eliade and his “message” (if those are even things we can understand). It seems like he’s saying that he’s only going to talk about Eliade with reference to Eliade, as if Eliade is his own entity separate from other influences.

    And just as a side note: It’s also interesting to see how Cave sees himself as an authority on the real Eliade. “The whole Eliade is included.” I wonder how he decided what to include about Eliade, his mission of new humanism, etc… Not that I can say for certain, but I’m guessing there are gaps in this narrative that creates this particular Eliade he’s writing about, which for him is _the_ Eliade, of course.

  3. While I, too, agree that the climate change is a present issue, I fail to see how the role of “expert” or “problem solver” falls on the collective AAR. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be addressed, but I have a hard time understanding how, as a scholar of religion, one has the insight or authority to “suggest a meaningful set of actions in response” to this issue.

    Furthermore, I find the notion that scholars of religion have a “role specific duty” in solving the issue–or any issue–a bit troublesome. (… Not to mention the idea that scholars ought to behave, act, and live in a certain way–whatever that way may be…) In my opinion, the role of the scholar is to critically analyze and question claims such as these, not to set out to establish and promote meaning. Perhaps a more productive role is for these scholars, with their varying interests and and areas of study, is to analyze how different groups address (or don’t) the issue of global warming. Do they think it’s an issue; if so, how do they approach addressing it, how does it become a prevalent issue within a group of people, etc.?–perhaps even how it becomes the agenda of the AAR. It strikes me that this approach falls more in line with the AAR’s promotion of “free inquiry and critical examination” than does the AAR’s attempt to solve the global warming crisis.